DNF: 4 Books I Gave Up on in 2018

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In my younger years, I would NEVER give up on a book halfway-through. I can only think of 2 books I tried to read before I was 18 that I chose not to finish because I was offended by the content or language.

When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the misguided notion that it was somehow wrong or bad to quit reading a book if it didn’t interest me or I didn’t have time. It took me a few years, but I finally came to realize that life is too short to slog through books you don’t care about reading.

So this year, while I have finished most of the books I began reading, there have been a handful of books that I started but decided not to finish for one reason or another:

  • The Loneliness of the Black Republican, by Leah Wright Rigueur — I may actually come back to this one at some point in the future. The premise intrigues me, since it challenges the unspoken assumption that all African-Americans do or should or must support the Democratic Party. However, the book is written at a pretty high academic level, and when I tried to read it back in February, I was not ready to keep up with Rigueur’s rigorous analysis. After struggling for about 30 pages to follow her initial arguments, I threw in the towel. She won’t catch me off-guard next time.
  • Meddling Kids, by Edgar Cantero — I figured this premise was a winner: A group of kids who became locally famous as a detective team (like the Scooby Doo gang) are haunted by something they discovered during their last case years ago. Now adults, the surviving members of the team (and the ghost of the non-surviving member) return to a haunted lake where a mysterious evil lurks–and it’s not just an old man wearing a monster-mask. And yet…it didn’t work for me. To be honest, it could have, but some of the narrative choices the author made bugged me, as well as the way he wrote some of the adult characters. I got about halfway through the book and realized I wasn’t having nearly as much fun as I had hoped, so I cashed in my chips and moved on.
  • The Essential Guide to Freelance Writing, by Zachary Petit — This is a helpful field guide from the good folks at Writer’s Digest about the ins and outs of freelance writing, particularly in the world of print and online short-form content creation. The style of the book is funny and light, and the information looked really helpful, but I realized after about 70 pages that it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for when I picked it up this fall. I had been gathering information about how to juggle side-work while keeping my day job, but since I wasn’t doing content creation, it wasn’t a good fit. I think it would be a great resource for anyone who’s entering the freelance writing market, so it’s worth checking out if that’s what you need.
  • Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts, by Jaron Lanier — You’re probably thinking that I didn’t finish this book because I am deep in the throes of social media addiction. Well, you’re… Look, you’re not wrong, necessarily, but that’s not the reason, okay? As it happens, right before I started this book, I was listening to an episode of the podcast “Table of (Mal)Contents.” The hosts were discussing books that “should have stayed a blog post or TED Talk”–popular (and sometimes best-selling) titles that are basically an inflated repackaging of earlier content, puffed up by repetition or illustration to reach “book” length. Well, I don’t know if Jaron Lanier gave a TED talk about deleting social media, but this 150-page book felt about 120 pages too long. It’s not that he had bad ideas, or that he was necessarily wrong. The book was just thin. After the first 2 or 3 chapters, I skimmed the rest of it. Other than some cheap shots at political parties and politicians he disagrees with, Lanier doesn’t provide anything groundbreaking here. (In fact, if you would actually like to watch a really good TED talk on the subject of quitting social media, this talk by Cal Newport is excellent.)

I think there have been a few more, but these are 4 books that I checked out on, this year. (Note: I didn’t include the handful of books that I’m still reading and just didn’t quite finish before entering 2019. I’ll add those to my 2019 reading list!)

What about you? Are there any books that you decided to quit reading this year? Or are you the type of reader who perseveres no matter what? Let me know in the comments!

The4thDave Reads: “What Is Reformed Theology?” by Dr. R.C. Sproul

I’m not sure exactly when I started exploring Reformed doctrine. It happened sometime in the late 2000’s, likely due to my crossing paths with the ministries of John Piper, Mark Driscoll (before he drove Mars Hill into a ditch), and Matt Chandler. Sometime between 2007 and 2010, I began really considering the doctrines of election and predestination, and it made me see parts of the New Testament with new eyes.

I grew up in the SBC, so if “Calvinism” was ever mentioned (which wasn’t often, in my circles), it was generally distrusted. In fact, thinking back to my early days of teaching college Sunday School classes, I shudder to remember the outright Arminianism that I taught for a few years. Suffice it to say, the tone and tenor of my teaching greatly changed.

Depending on whom you talk to, I’m not technically “reformed” in  my theology as much as “Calvinistic” in my soteriology — meaning, I hold to what’s called the “Doctrines of Grace” but I’m not confessional in my theology. (I’m still looking into it, y’all, chill out.) But no matter what label I would use for my own position, I have become convinced that the “reformed” doctrine of salvation is the best way to interpret the Scriptures.

Why bring all this up? Just putting my cards on the table, so that when I say I found Dr. Sproul’s classic book on the “basics” of Reformed theology compelling and instructive, I’m clear about my starting point and that I was already inclined to agree with it. What I found in this helpful volume only confirmed my resolve on these issues.

What Is Reformed Theology? provides an outstanding primer on the basics of (you guessed it) Reformed theology, as well as chapter-long explications of the 5 “petals” of the TULIP acrostic (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints), while addressing the misconceptions of and arguments against each concept. Dr. Sproul doesn’t make assumptions about his reader, but carefully works through the core concepts, in order to demonstrate the soundness of a Reformed reading of Scripture.

What Worked

I found this volume to be approachable though not simple. This isn’t a light and breezy read, but it’s also not tied down by opaque theological jargon. Dr. Sproul is a natural teacher, so his argumentation builds from simple to complex. If you’re looking to learn these concepts, this is a great resource.  Dr. Sproul touches on different points in church history that address the doctrinal discussions involved, and provides a Biblical justification for the arguments used.

The examination of free will and “compatibilism” in the chapter on total depravity was particularly helpful in clarifying my understanding on the idea of how our volition co-exists with God’s sovereignty. I had been introduced to this idea before, but Dr. Sproul’s explanation helped me to settle the ideas in my mind so that I could explain it more easily in my own teaching and writing.

I also appreciated how Dr. Sproul took time to address misconceptions and misapplications of the TULIP acrostic, including a helpful explanation about how some of the terminology used in the name of each doctrine may actually confuse the issue. For example, he argued that “P” may be better explained as the Preservation of the Saints, because it is the work of God that holds us, and not simply that we hold on to Him. This helped me consider how the way we say things should be carefully considered when we discuss theological truths.

Minor Quibbles

I do have two small critiques of this volume.

First, the chapter on covenant theology felt a bit thin. Granted, the nature of the volume did not allow for anything but the basics to be explained, but as someone who did not grow up in that mindset, I was hoping for a bit more meat on the bone when it came to the difference between covenant theology and other approaches like dispensationalism. I suppose the onus is on me to seek a deeper discussion on my own.

Secondly, the book just ends after the chapter on perseverance/preservation of the saints, the “P” of TULIP. I think a summary or concluding chapter that tied the ideas together again at the end would have been appropriate, rather than just running abruptly into the end-notes.

Also: End notes? Really? Hm.

My Recommendation

What is Reformed Theology? is an incredibly helpful volume for people who are unfamiliar with Reformed thinking (or grew up hearing that Calvinists are missions-hating boogeymen) or those who want to solidify their understanding of the Doctrines of Grace. Clocking in at 250 pages, this is a speedy and effective way to get your feet set as you begin to explore this theological system.

 

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Please Note: The publisher, Baker Books, provided my a paperback copy of the book in exchange for a honest review.

(I’m sorry it took me so long to write this, Baker! #OverdueBookReview )

#The4thDaveReads: Summer Round-up!

Hey y’all! I apologize for the radio silence over the last week or so. Between looking for freelance opportunities and helping take my baby sister back to college for the fall, I’ve been a bit overbooked! Suffice it to say, I’m happy to be back behind the keyboard.

Today, I’m back with some reviews of books I finished reading over the last 4-5 weeks. You ready? Let’s do this thing!

The Keto Reset Diet, by Mark Sisson — I’ve had more than a few conversations over the last 3 months about the weight-loss progress I’ve made. At first, I would simply say that I was following a ketogenic diet, but this resulted in more than a few blank stares. Sometimes, the person would respond, “So, like the Caveman Diet? Eating nothing but meat? Isn’t that unhealthy?” This would result in a much longer conversation than I’m sure my friend was really ready for, in which I would clarify what ketogenic eating means (low-carb, high-fat, moderate-protein) and how it has been beneficial to me, even beyond the scale. At the end, I usually trail off when I start feeling like one of those obnoxious fitness-cult people, droning on too long about an obscure dietary approach.

More recently, my response to keto questions has involved my bringing up Mark Sisson’s excellent book. I usually recommend The Keto Reset Diet for 3 reasons: 1) Sisson begins by laying out the scientific ideas behind this style of eating; 2) the book describes a 3-week carb-reduction process that is really “pre-keto” so that people avoid diving into the deep end too quickly and burning out; 3) there are dozens of helpful starter recipes for those who want to start eating this way. If you’re interested in checking out the keto eating style, Sisson’s book may be a great introduction for you.

The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan — Bunyan’s allegory of the Christian life, written from the confinement of an English prison cell, is one of the top-selling English-language books of all time, and for good reason. This narrative of a sinner’s journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City is part adventure story, part catechism, part Scriptural exegesis, and part soul-care textbook. Generations of Christians have found Bunyan’s tale encouraging and challenging.

What many modern readers miss is that the story is actually written in two parts: the popular first part that follows Christian’s journey to glory, and the less-well-known second part, in which Christian’s wife (aptly named Christiana) and their four children follow in his footsteps and make the trek to Zion, facing a few familiar faces and dangers, as well as some new ones.

I’ve written about this second part of the story elsewhere, but suffice it to say, I really love this book. Nevertheless, I can understand how hard it may be to get through sometimes; there are sections that are plainly didactic, as the narrative grinds to a halt to allow the characters engage in theological discourse. However, I would encourage readers to push through, because (unlike another much-beloved Christian children’s allegory) the theology is sound all the way through and rewards thoughtful consideration. In some cases, it may not be a bad idea to pick up a modern-language update, if it’s your first time through the story. On the other hand, if you can understand the King James Bible, you shouldn’t have any trouble with Bunyan’s original text.

Pops, by Michael Chabon — There are certain writers that I’ve read and enjoyed in the past but can’t really connect with in the present. I think Michael Chabon has become one of those writers. I remember enjoying Wonder Boys and adoring Kavalier and Clay, despite moments where the author’s worldview clearly conflicts with my own. There’s no question that Chabon is a talented novelist, so I hoped I would enjoy his non-fiction work just as much.

Pops is a collection of personal essays that Chabon wrote for various publications over the last few years. Given that the volume’s underlying subject matter is fatherhood, I assumed I would enjoy this peek into Chabon’s thoughts about being both a son and a father. In the end, I really just stopped caring about either.

Throughout each piece, it felt like Chabon wasn’t so much writing about his experience of fatherhood, as signalling to the reader that he was being the right kind of father, raising the right kind of children. His attempts at self-deprecation felt forced, as if he knew he was supposed to play the “slightly-out-of-touch-but-still-hip dad” role but couldn’t quite sell it. The whole exercise just felt forced. Maybe I’m not in the right frame of mind or time of life to appreciate it, but I don’t care enough to revisit it later. Although it’s a short collection (barely over 100 pages), I had to push to finish reading it and was relieved to hit that back cover.

Side Hustle, by Chris Gillebeau — As I’m sure I’ve written before, self-help/productivity/motivational books are only as good as what you actually do with that information. Or, as Gillebeau says at the end of every episode of his Side-Hustle School podcast (highly recommended, for the puns if nothing else!), “Inspiration is good, but inspiration combined with action is so much better!”

This is extremely true with his fantastic book, Side Hustle. If you have an idea for a new business, or want to try to create some extra income during your free time, this book is a must-read. I’ve realized over the last week that some of the roadblocks and frustration I’ve been experiencing with my attempts to build freelance work is because I haven’t been applying what I read in the book!

In Side-Hustle, Gillebeau takes you through a 5-week plan for brainstorming, planning, and executing a side-hustle business. There are step-by-step instructions about process, questions to consider, and mistakes to avoid. Along the way, he demonstrates these steps with story after story of hustlers who found success by making smart choices and working hard. It’s an inspiring read, even if (like me) you’ve never considered creating a business for yourself. I definitely recommend this book, especially if you’ve got the itch to build something of your own.

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As you can see, my reading this summer has been quite varied. As for the next few months of #The4thDaveReads, I’m working on a few interesting titles:

  • The Exemplary Husband, by Stuart Scott
  • Everybody Writes, by Ann Handley
  • The Thing Is, by Tony Payne
  • The ESV Reader’s Bible: Prophets

I’m looking forward to discussing all of these with you in September!

Have a great Wednesday, and I’ll see you on Friday with another #FridayFive!

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Your Turn: What’s your favorite read from this summer (or any summers past)?  Let me know in the comments below!

 

The4thDave Reads: A mixed bag, to be honest…

Hey y’all, here’s are some “capsule reviews” of the books I’ve completed this month!

Finish!, by Jon Acuff: This is the third in what I like to call his “basic instructions” series of motivational books (following “Start” and “Do Over”–you’re welcome to use the moniker, Jon!). Acuff has created a fanbase by delivering easy-to-follow, approachable guidance for those who are wanting to improve their lives and careers, and he blends humor and self-deprecation into all of his advice. I have to admit, there are times when Acuff’s writing feels a bit too cutesy, but then he hits me with an observation that is both obvious and frustrating in its pointed truth. In Finish!, he writes about (no surprise here) finishing projects and completing goals, rather than letting them peter out into disappointment. There are questions to answer at the end of each chapter, as you think about goals you want to accomplish and what you can do to avoid your typical pitfalls in pursuing them. I found this to be a very useful book. I copied down all the diagnostic questions into a notebook and have been working through them over the last few days. I may be delving into some of this in later posts, so I’ll save that for later.

Smallville Season 11: Volumes 1 and 2 (“Guardian” and “Detective”), by Bryan Q. Miller and Pere Perez: I’m a big fan of the Smallville TV series. I don’t think it gets enough respect for how it paved the way for comic-book TV series, and how (despite its WB/CW teen-romance beginnings) it really came into its own as a proto-Superman story in the final seasons. This comic book series by Bryan Q. Miller (who was involved in the writing/directing of some Smallville episodes, I believe) carries on after the TV show’s finale, showing what comes next for the Big Blue Boy Scout. These first two collections contain the first 8 or so comics in this run (which has been going on for a few years and is still enjoying some popularity). The writing is pretty consistent with the tone of the show’s dialogue, and the storylines are right in line with what you’d expect: Lex Luthor, whose memory was wiped at the end of Season 10, is building a “defense” system to guard against alien threats. Superman is becoming a public figure and has to reckon with how to maintain a double life. In Volume 2, Bruce Wayne’s Batman arrives, and while he is antagonistic/suspicious of Superman at first, they quickly see eye to eye (in a way that’s more believable than Zach Snyder’s attempt at the concept). The dialogue of the series mainstays hits the right notes; I hear their portrayals as I read it, especially the Lex Luthor dialogue where Michael Rosenbaum’s iconic delivery is represented well. But the artwork. Oh, the artwork. I almost closed the first volume after 3 pages because the figures and faces of these characters were abominable, sometimes downright laughable. The quality of the art was inconsistent at best throughout both volumes. Perez has no idea whatsoever how to draw Rosenbaum’s Luthor without him devolving into a twice-photocopied image of One-Punch-Man. The artwork was distracting throughout the book, which is a real shame because the writing was on point. I stopped reading after Volume 2 because I needed to move on to some other things, but I’d like to pick it up again in the future. Hopefully, another artist was brought on board to improve upon Perez’s weak work.

American Assassin, by Vince Flynn: You know that GIF of Jason Bateman from Arrested Development, where he opens up the paper bag in the refrigerator marked “Dead Bird,” recoils slightly, and then says “I don’t know what I was expecting”? That’s my “TL;DR” review of American Assassin. I saw a movie trailer for the adaptation of Flynn’s story, and it looked kind of interesting, though it was clear there was potential for sexual content. I figured I’d try the novel, instead; after all, Flynn hit the NYT bestseller list. I was in the mood for something light and forgettable. Popcorn reading. How bad could it be? Answer: Bad. Not even really bad, just boring. The protagonist, Mitch Rapp, is an all-American college athlete whose girlfriend/fiancee/who-cares was killed in the Lockerbie bombing in 1988. (It took me a solid 100 pages to realize this book was set in 1990 or so. Bad reading comprehension, Dave!) He vows revenge (or, as he puts it, “retribution”) on the terrorists responsible and all like them, and hooks up with a secret CIA program for training black-ops assassins, as ya do. The first 200 pages of the book detail the extensive training and winnowing process conducted by Stan Hurley, a former spook with a legendary reputation in the more dangerous corners of the world. Finally, Rapp is selected for this assignment, because he is PERFECT IN EVERYTHING THAT HE DOES. That was the first big strike for me; the hero is too perfect. He’s in total control of every situation, his internal dialogue is primarily composed of clever quips, and it all comes easy to him. It’s like placing the worst parts of Pierce Brosnan’s Bond in a Jason Bourne or Jack Bauer skill-set. As a result, there never seemed to be any real stakes. The next 300 pages in which Rapp and his associates complete their missions becomes grindingly tedious. Oh, one of their allies is a wealthy old German investor with a gorgeous granddaughter in her twenties who is attracted to the hero? Then obviously they sleep together after knowing each other for 6 hours, because why not, right? Completely pointless. There were a few times I thought about abandoning the book because it was ludicrous in an utterly tedious way, but I was more than halfway through, and I figured, it had to get better at some point, right? [Ron Howard narration: “It didn’t get better.”] In summary: Boring, stupid, predictable, with foul language and a pointless (though blessedly short) sex scene. Pass on this one, gang.

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I also read a great book about the doctrine of vocation, but that will get its own post. I’m also in the midst of a few more that I’ll be able to finish before the month is up. Yay for reading time!

Your Turn: What’s one of your favorite mindless/popcorn/beach reads? Something light, silly, or enjoyable? Comment below!

The4thDave Reads: “Real Artists Don’t Starve” by Jeff Goins

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I need to begin with an apology. Jeff Goins’ team graciously sent me a hardcover copy of Real Artists Don’t Starve to review…around a year ago. It was right around the time we were working on Season 1 of Presto! Fairy Tales (now available on Youtube!) and I started the book but quickly put it down. It wasn’t because it was boring; on the contrary, I was really enjoying it. Rather, I think I stopped reading it at that point because it was making me…uncomfortable.

The premise of the provocatively-titled Real Artists Don’t Starve (hereafter called RADS) is that the myth of the “Starving Artist” is just that–a romanticized myth that does not need to be the reality of anyone pursuing creative work. Goins’ passion is helping creative people to step out and discover how they can bring their passion to life, and throughout RADS, he does this by contrasting the Starving Artist with what he calls the “Thriving Artist.” In the twelve main chapters of RADS, Goins examines these two visions of the artistic life, as a series of contrasting statements. For example:

  • The Starving Artist strives to be original. The Thriving Artist steals from his influences.
  • The Starving Artist waits to be noticed. The Thriving Artist cultivates patrons.
  • The Starving Artist always works alone. The Thriving Artist collaborates with others.

Goins uses these contrasts to examine the assumptions that creatives make about how the creative life “should” function. In doing so, he presents a series of “rules” of the Thriving Artist, such as the Rule of Creative Theft (scandalous!) or the Rule of the Patron. By proposing these basic principles of what Goins calls “the New Renaissance,” he encourages the reader to rethink how he or she approaches creative work. RADS is organized into three sections, addressing the creative person’s mind-set, market, and money–the creation, connection, and commerce that are all part of producing and promoting your art.

So why was I uncomfortable when I started reading RADS? Because I’m in a season of life where some of my creative goals seem to be on hold. I say seem to be because Goins’ writing (and his podcast, The Portfolio Life) consistently challenge me to get going and stop making excuses.

If you’re a new reader, you may not be aware that I’ve always wanted to be a novelist. I’ve got several false-starts and unexplored story ideas that I’ve been kicking around for years. Every so often, I’ll pull one out, play with it a bit, and then decide to put it back because it’s “not the right time” to (re)start writing. Beyond that, the typical discussion of “platform” and “self-marketing” always grosses me out a little bit. But as Goins addresses these issues in RADS, he challenges some of the stigmas around the business of art that I have been holding onto and forces me to admit that the reason I don’t try harder to make it happen is that I’m scared to fail.

What’s crazy is that despite my fear, these stories won’t let me go. These characters creep into my idle thoughts and want to be seen and heard. In some small measure, my attempts are regular blog posting are warm-up exercises for the transition to re-engage with the writing life. Or they may be a filler or replacement to give my itching fingers the illusion of motion.

(…Where was I? Oh, right, book review.)

Real Artists Don’t Starve is another excellent work by Jeff Goins that challenges the reader to get real about why they may not be pursing the creative life of their daydreams. His advice is practical and encouraging. The book itself is fast-moving and readable, but the reader should resist the temptation to speed through it. Instead, it may be beneficial to take each chapter at a time, and give the ideas some breathing room to germinate in your mind. Such contemplation will be well worth it. I would definitely recommend this book.

[And Jeff, I’m sorry I didn’t read it sooner. But if you think about it, it’s really your fault for writing something that got under my skin, ya know?]

The4thDave Reads: The ESV Reader’s Bible – Poetry

I started the year with a goal of reading through the Bible in less than a year for the first time ever. My wife had given me a gorgeous “reader’s Bible” set as a Christmas present, and I was excited to dig in and start reading straight through.

In the first 2 1/2 months of the year, I made quick work of the Pentateuch and the Historical Books by committing to reading 30 minutes a day, usually at the end of the day. I loved it! I was able to move through large sections of Scripture and just focus on the story and the overarching themes. During the few times I really struggled to make progress (I’m lookin’ at you, I-II Chronicles), having all of the names and places and histories fresh in my mind really helped to make the early part of the Old Testament come alive.

I started the Poetry volume with that same excitement, and zipped through the book of Job. However, when I started Psalms, I hit a slump. I wish I could blame my lost momentum on our family vacation and days of driving and visiting family. But the real problem was that my daily reading became very inconsistent, and I struggled with my approach to the text.

Reading 30 minutes non-stop is great for narrative, or even Old Testament case-law. But when it came to Psalms and Proverbs, I soon realized that plowing through it wasn’t helping me retain much. So I made the decision to read only 5 Psalms a day, and a page or two of Proverbs, with the hope of more meditation instead of mere completion. If I had stuck to it consistently, it would have taken me only 4-5 weeks. It took longer.

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I should take a moment here to talk about the reading experience with these volumes, and the effect of the type-setting and formatting. Each of the six volumes is bound in a stiff, cloth-covered hardback cover with a pleasant grain to it. The pages are printed on a creamy, white paper with none of the bleed-through or onion-skin feel that typical Bible pages have. It’s really a wonderful tactile experience, using this Bible. I didn’t think I’d enjoy it as much as I do. I’m not sure it would motivate me to pay full price for it (we got it at a steep discount), but it’s a nice luxury to enjoy and I’m thankful for it.

As for the layout and typesetting, there are minimal notations, limited primarily to the book title and major section headings (think 3-4 per book). This presents a challenge with books like Proverbs, in which you have a total of 2-3 headings inserted into the entire book, and the rest of the book mostly laid out as a never-ending series of couplets. This type of layout makes it easy to speed through without really stopping to ponder the proverbs themselves, and is one of the few instances in which having the modern addition of chapter divisions prevents a fly-over approach, because you are more likely to stop and reflect more often.

On the other hand, the editors decided to keep the Psalm divisions, which seems appropriate. So the book of Psalms is divided into the five “books” and then according to each individual Psalm. The lack of verse notations is particularly helpful here, because it then becomes a visual reminder that each Psalm is meant to be taken as a whole.

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All this to say, throughout the end of March and then into April and May, my Bible-in-a-year progress slowed to a crawl. I was reading inconsistently and in smaller segments. Once I finished Psalms and Proverbs (finally!), I was able to knock out Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon over the next 3-4 reading days.

I’m not sure how I would approach the reading of Psalms and Proverbs differently in the future, if I’m using the “reader’s Bible” format. I think those books may be best read with the divisions in place, in a “Psalms/Proverb of the Day” approach (in which you could read 5 Psalms and 1 chapter of Proverbs a day for 31 days). But how I read them is irrelevant if I’m not committed to do so consistently, rather than using my schedule changes and life events as an excuse to get lazy.

I’m slowly getting things back on track (and I’m halfway through Isaiah–woohoo!). Daily, consistent time in the Word is a habit I should have built years ago, and I’m glad, if nothing else, that I have the chance to amend that now.

The4thDave Reads: “S.” by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst

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I’m a sucker for footnotes, especially footnotes in novels. For example, I was tickled by the implied history and imaginary academic research cited in Susanna Clarke’s splendid Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, a work of Victorian urban-fantasy featuring dueling wizards and fanciful creatures during the Napoleonic Wars.

Until this year, the most unique novel-reading experience I’ve ever had was Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, a sprawling, labyrinthine psychological-haunted-house story with layers of meta-commentary in its footnotes and editorial asides, bewilderingly cryptic typesetting choices, and a rabid fan base that was active online when I finished that novel several years after its publication.

That book is the closest analog I can think of for Abrams and Dorst’s novel S., which was published in late 2013. At that time, it seemed to be warmly received by the critical press but quickly forgotten. It was the first book I ever bought as a result of a “book trailer” (which I assume was a pretty novel [no pun intended] concept in 2013). I started to read it and stopped 2 different times in the last 4+ years, before finally buckling down to read it to completion last month.

Why the false starts? Because, like House of Leaves, this is a book within a book, but ratcheted up to the next level. When you remove S. from its slipcase, you find that the book you’re holding is a old high school library book (complete with library accouterments and stamped labels) called Ship of Theseus by V. M. Straka. The story of SoT is a surreal work of mid-twentieth-century European literature, following an amnesiac protagonist on an exploration of identity, political extremism, and metaphysical confusion. It’s…weird, but weird in a compelling way. However, the base book would be incomplete, if not a bit nonsensical, without the meta-novel.

The meta-novel consists of 3-4 layers of “handwritten” margin notes between two readers, Jen and Eric (written at different times in their “story”), along with about 2 dozen pieces of inserted materials–things like postcards, newspaper clippings, letters, a wheel for decoding ciphers, and a hand-written campus map on a napkin from a university coffee-shop. In the meta-novel, the reader meets these two characters: Jen, a senior at Pollard State University, and Eric, a former graduate student and TA at Pollard who was expunged from the school’s records due to an academic controversy. The conversation between these two correspondents drifts back and forth between their personal lives and their shared interests: a scholarly debate about the true identity of SoT‘s author and a worldwide conspiracy that may be working to keep that fact a secret. (I’m pretty sure this is meant to bring to mind the debate about Shakespeare’s true identity, which is referenced in the book as well.)

Over the course of the novels, these layers of commentary (which sometimes address the text itself and other times are merely inspired by a word or phrase on that page) reveal the second story, a story of two people trying to make sense of difficult life experiences and struggling to connect with each other (a story that is echoed in the novel’s subtext and footnotes, as explained by the readers). The element of time is part of the trick here–we as readers are teased early on by “future” Jen and Eric making veiled allusions to events in their story that we don’t hear about for several pages or even chapters. (Confession: The whole “layers of marginalia” mechanic breaks down a little bit if you really think about the logistics, because usually [though not always] it reads like a conversation instead of a series of passed notes. I recommend treating it as one of those charming elements that one just happily accepts. Makes the whole enterprise function more smoothly.)

So the vital question, then: Does it work? And my answer is: Mostly, yes. Both storylines are at times quite gripping, though not at the same time, which works to its advantage. There are a few slow spots and the endings felt a bit abrupt, but the whole concept is so bonkers that I hung on for the ride and was not disappointed. I took the approach of reading through each new chapter of SoT, before tackling the layers of notes for that chapter. It doesn’t take long to figure out the chronological order of the notations, thanks to the different color inks for each set of interactions. I’ve heard of other approaches to the reading of the book(s), but I think this one keeps things flowing pretty well. The footnote story includes lots of foreshadowing in its references to the primary text as well, so not having read Straka’s book all the way through yet made these references all the more tantalizing.

[Content note: Other than some occasional strong language in the footnote-story and an unnecessary “boo, intolerant Christian parents” subplot, I can’t recall any offensive or off-putting content. Nothing comes to mind, at any rate.]

In the end, I’m very glad I read this novel. It’s not a perfect story, and I don’t think I need to reread it anytime soon, but it was a unique reading experience that I will enjoy referencing to others in the future. Whatever shortcomings the plot(s) may have had, the gonzo approach to challenging storytelling conventions made it a winner for me.

The4thDave Reads: “The Imperfect Disciple” by Jared C. Wilson

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I feel like I say it every time I review/discuss a Jared Wilson book: I really love Wilson’s writing. I appreciate his heart, which comes through with every page. And Jared’s a legitimately good and sincere dude in person.

The Imperfect Disciple was released last year, and it really feels like Wilson’s most personal book to date. In the past, he has written more soaringly theological books, more widely-applicable books on ecclesiology and pastoral ministry. But Imperfect Disciple is both confessional and pastoral, encouraging and vulnerable. In most chapters, he shares personal stories in which he presents himself not as the hero, but as shy, awkward, and very human.

The effect of this is…jarring, in a rather nice way. In so much theological writing, you get the impression that the author is a varsity-level, all-state Christian, even if he or she would deny such designations. Lots of theological books have a feeling of otherness, of rabbi-ness–and that’s not to say that this is a bad thing. I like being taught by scholars and pastors who are wiser and more astute than I am. It blesses and challenges me.

But you don’t get a lot of books on the Christian life in which the author is upfront with how hard it is for him to walk this path sometimes. This is Wilson at his most personal (as personal as you can properly get in a book, I think). This feels like Wilson sitting across the table from you at a burger joint, a crumb or two on his shirt, telling you about his own faith journey. As such, his language and descriptions can be a bit colloquial–never crass or crude, but natural and un-pastory. (That sounds like a criticism; it’s not.)

Through the 10+ chapters in Imperfect Disciple, Jared talks about the in’s and out’s of daily Christian life–preaching the Gospel to yourself, practicing spiritual disciplines, dealing with doubt, hoping toward heaven. While there are places here and there where I could quibble with how he worded things or addressed theological ideas, he never veers into error. His ultimate aim in every chapter is to point the readers’ eyes away from themselves and back to Christ, the savior of imperfect and often lousy and foolish disciples.

In the end, I found The Imperfect Disciple to be refreshing and encouraging. Jared Wilson continues to minister to me as a fellow believer, and his honest and personal words remind me that I am loved by God, no matter how imperfectly I follow Him. This is a salve to my too-often-self-critical heart.

The4thDave Reads: A Bunch of Stuff back in March…

As promised previously, I had planned on writing reviews for every book I read this year. Obviously, since I have only posted one so far, I got a little behind on this goal. So here’s a quick catch-up post. I won’t be going as in-depth as I normally would (since these are going to be capsule reviews from memory), but I want to at least work on getting up to speed.

(Random fun-fact: All but the ESV volume and the unnamed final entry were books I had started before the year began but hadn’t yet finished. [Okay, “fun” was maybe overselling it.])

The ESV Reader’s Bible: Historical Books — Volume 2 of the 6-volume ESV Reader’s Bible covers Joshua-Esther. A few varied comments on this section of the Old Testament:

  • Leviticus gets a bad rap. For my money, I Chronicles is the hardest slog in the OT–and I say that will full respect and appropriate honor to the divinely-inspired Scriptures. Every word of the Bible is God-breathed and profitable, but when it’s your first time through, 15 or so chapters of lists of names is CHALLENGING. That said, having read straight-through to that point, it was exciting to start recognizing names and family lines.
  • My recurring thought throughout Samuel-Kings-Chronicles: even the very best human kings are fallible and frustrating, which only emphasizes what a good king Jesus is. He will never fail us.
  • Another recurring thought: how easily we fall into idolatry and sin, letting our fear and greed and pride choke out all good sense and memory of what God has commanded us and accomplished for us. As tempting as it would be to read these stories of Israel’s unfaithfulness and shake my head in disbelief, I have to be honest and say, “This is me. This is all me.”

A Little Book about the Christian Life, by John Calvin — This selection of newly-translated essays was a giveaway from Ligonier Ministries. The book design was really nice–minimalist, compact, clean. Burk Parsons translated and updated these 5 chapters of Calvin’s Institutes, and as you can imagine, they were dense, edifying, and thought-provoking. I read this one really slowly, maybe a paragraph or two at a time. It stayed on my bedside table and became a source of meditation and contemplation just before bed, most nights. I have to admit, I can’t recall a specific quote or point that was particularly meaningful. But on the whole, I benefited from this small volume precisely because it helped me focus my thoughts on the Lord as I ended each day–and that’s something of value.

The World-Tilting Gospel, by Dan Phillips — Okay, confession time: I started this book…4 years ago. In my defense, it was right before I got married, and in the chaos of merging two households and lives, the book got shuffled around and eventually recirculated into the TBR shelf. I kept meaning to get back to it, and finally (finally!) did. This book examines the core truths o the Gospel, and then addresses how they force us to look at the world differently. The chapters in which Pastor Phillips details the implications of the Gospel on justification and sanctification are particularly fine. However, my favorite bits are where he addresses false understandings of the Christian life, such as the “muzzy mysticism” of those who abstract the truths of the Scriptures in the attempt to be “spiritual.” Phillips is a clear thinker, and his writing is bracing and direct.

The Gospel According to Jesus, by Dr.John MacArthur — John MacArthur is often associated with what’s called the “lordship controversy,” and this book is his full-throated response to those accusations. What was the controversy? MacArthur had the audacity to preach and teach that if Jesus is your Savior, He is also your de facto Lord, and there is no such thing as “making” Jesus the Lord of your life. MacArthur insists on and thoroughly demonstrates from Scripture that Christian faith without a recognition of and submission to Jesus’ authority as Lord is no Christian faith whatsoever. While opponents of this view claim that it suggests a salvation by works, MacArthur dismantles this notion by using the Scriptures themselves to demonstrate that the call of salvation is a call to discipleship and allegiance to a new Master. This book is excellent and incredibly profitable, no matter where you are in your Christian walk.

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There was one more book I read (technically, listened to) at the end of March, but it’s part of a larger series and it would only do to review the entire series together. I read the first volume in March, and Books 2 and 3 in April (the only books I completed that month, sadly). Once I finish Book 4 and the supplemental stories, I’ll provide a full review at that point.

You may be saying, “Good grief, tell us what book, man!” Nah, I’ll keep that a surprise. But I’ll say this–depending on how the last volume goes, this series may just overtake The Chronicles of Narnia as my favorite children’s series of all time. And that’s saying something.

Anyway, ‘ere we are.

Have you read anything fun lately? Comment below and let me know what should go on my reading list!

Last 5 Books [7/17/17]

Hey friends! Lots going on lately, but I’ve been able to do a little reading over the last month or so.  Here are the last 5 books I’ve read and my brief thoughts on each!

Linchpin, by Seth Godin – This book by business and productivity “guru” Seth Godin touched on a lot of really interesting ideas that I’ll probably bring up in a later post. Here’s one that I found pretty compelling: the way to elevate your work from being another monkey pressing a button in a cubicle to creating “art” (even if you aren’t in an artistic field) is to bring your humanity to bear in your daily tasks. Don’t just be content with formality and the minimum necessary effort to interact with people. Remember that you’re emailing actual people with feelings and concerns. Treat them that way. It raises the game for all concerned.

The Wonder-Working God, by Jared Wilson – Wilson’s work is always excellent. (I’m an unabashed fan.) This book was helpful to me because it challenged me to look at the accounts of miracles in the Gospels with fresh eyes, and look at how these miracles were signposts pointing to who He is as God-in-flesh. Growing up in the faith, I’ve taken a lot of things in the Bible for granted. The truth is, the story of Jesus’ life and ministry is pretty fantastic and shocking, if you’re paying attention. I appreciated Wilson’s humor and eloquence in exploring these ideas.

Turning Pro, by Steven Pressfield – Pressfield has earned a reputation in the area of writing about writing and, in particular, about the war that writers wage against The Resistance, that internal force always threatening to stop us from producing art. In Turning Pro, Pressfield considers what it means to be an Amateur versus being a Professional, not just in terms of writing or creating art but in terms of life. His style is punchy and sometimes profound, but I felt like this volume wasn’t as strong as his other works, The War of Art or Do the Work, which I would recommend instead.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You, by Cal Newport – Newport challenges the oft-repeated advice to “follow your passion” by arguing that career satisfaction comes not through following your dreams but through working like a craftsman to become outstanding at whatever you’re currently doing. He argues that seeking to be exceptional and skillful in any field opens up opportunities (what he calls career capital) to increase your autonomy and direct your work toward a chosen mission. This book is chock-full of great ideas and interesting insights. I’ll have more to say on this later.

Husband-coached Childbirth, by Dr. Robert Bradley – My wife is having a baby pretty much any day now, and we have chosen to have the baby at a birth center with a midwife. Natural childbirth is a daunting task, and Dr. Bradley is one of the most trusted names in the field of natural childbirth in the United States. I really appreciate the high value that this approach places on the husband’s role in childbirth, and how Bradley coaches husbands to be actively involved throughout labor. While I have some qualms about some of his ideological assumptions, this book is very practical and would be a help to any prospective parents who are considering natural childbirth. It’s not the only resource out there, but certain a good one to check out.

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So what’s up next on the reading list?

  • I’m about a third of the way through the audio version of Tony Reinke’s Twelve Ways Your Phone is Changing You. This book is outstanding. Already going to call it a must-read.
  • I’m about to start The Cubs Way by Tom Verducci, a story of the management decisions that lead to last year’s magical World Series run.
  • I’m working my way through Jeff Goins’ latest book, Real Artists Don’t Starve. LOTS of good content there. Full review forthcoming.
  • Depending on when things come in from the library, this month I’ll also be starting The New Dads Playbook by Benjamin Watson, Teammate by former Cubs catcher (and DWTS runner-up!) David Ross, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, and a few others.

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Your Turn: Read anything interesting lately? About to start any new books? Let me know in the comments!